Meet the award-winning blind Hong Kong music student who sings, plays piano and sees fulfilment in serving others
Chinese University undergraduate recognised by Red Cross for humanitarian efforts
Inside a piano room located in a quiet corner of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, a 20-year-old music student, is playing and singing Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli’s duet, The Prayer.
But the 1999 hit is not just another song to Michelle Siu Hoi-yan. It is, as she puts it, more like a friend who guides her in the dark.
“I pray you’ll be our eyes, and watch us where we go,” she sings. “And help us to be wise in time when we don’t know.”
After a while, she pauses. “It’s like talking to a friend when I’m singing and playing this song,” the second-year student says. “The lyrics also give me confidence and power to overcome obstacles in my life.”
Siu, who lost her sight from eye cancer when she was only three months old, describes music as helping her to visualise the world, and, from the lyrics, she learns how bright the sun is.
“Music is my eyes.”
As an infant, Siu was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a form of eye cancer typically affecting young children. There are around five to 10 new cases in Hong Kong every year. Over 80 per cent of cases are diagnosed at a late stage, with removal of the eyeball the only life-saving option, according to Children’s Cancer Foundation.
Siu’s father, Derek Siu Fai-tak, remembers the anguish of having little choice but to agree with the doctor’s recommendation that eyeball removal was the best way to save her life. The cause of her cancer remains unknown.
“I was crying a lot, even when I was at work,” the retired civil servant recalls. “Whenever I looked at Michelle, I just burst into tears. Because she doesn’t deserve this, and we don’t deserve this.”
Least of all did he expect his daughter to become a student at one Hong Kong’s top universities and demonstrate a knack for music.
“After she lost her sight, I was afraid she wouldn’t be able to get a job when she grew up. I just hoped she could live a happy life and not become a beggar.”
As for the little girl who became an accomplished pianist, she believes her parents made the right decision given their awful dilemma.
“Even though I’m unable to see, my parents have given me a colourful and fruitful life.”
She remembers during a family trip to South Korea, when she was four, how her father threw her into a pile of snow to let her feel how soft and cold it was.
“Even though I’ve lost my sight, I’m happy that I’m able to develop other senses to get to know the world,” she explains. “My parents treat me like a normal kid.”
Her love of music became evident when she was about four. A family friend provided an old piano, and that’s when she started playing.
Siu both plays piano and sings at performance level, and has won many local and international music competitions.
But she notes music is not always about her. Ultimately, she wants to spread love through music, believing: “Music is a universal language that brings people together.”
In 2014, Siu volunteered to teach music and English to orphans in Henan province for five days. The “Aids village”, as it was known, witnessed many local residents battling against HIV as a result of unsanitary blood donations.
There, she met an elderly woman who wept upon her arrival.
“She was touched that we visited her,” Siu says. “No one had visited her before. Many were afraid of Aids.”
“I was touched, too,” she continues. “I didn’t know such a simple greeting would mean so much.”
Siu’s compassion and participation in charity work have not gone unnoticed. The Hong Kong Red Cross this year named her its recipient of an award recognising a young person’s devotion and contributions to humanitarian work.
“It’s my honour to be able to help the disadvantaged,” Siu says. “Not only are they happy, but I feel fulfilled, too.”